What Is Zen?

Way back when I was first in Japan at age 26, I went to Soto sesshin at a remote mountain temple. I arrived a few days early in order to settle in and found myself intrigued with a little old man and his quiet brightness. He looked a bit like this fellow that I pulled off “Images.”

He didn’t talk much and I assumed he didn’t speak English. I learned that he had participated in a koan-Zen sesshin when he was very young and did big kensho – his first sesshin!

At the end of the sesshin, the Zen master announced who’d had realization that sesshin and asked them to take a trip around the zendo with everyone bowing.

This freaked the then-young guy out. He quit Zen, became a school teacher in Tokyo, got married, and raised a family. Many years later, just when he was ready to retire, his wife of many years died, and so this Zen guy began drifting around Soto Zen places.

One afternoon before sesshin started, we were assigned to work together chopping firewood. It was July, I believe, and very hot. Despite our age difference, I had to struggle to keep up. When we finally stopped to take a break, I noticed that we were both covered with sweat. The old guy suddenly came over to me, stood just a couple feet away, face to face, with a big smile.

“Dosho,” he asked in very clear and natural English, “What is Zen?”

I was like new mu student caught in the dokusan room.

“Um,” I said clearly, probably more than once.

He waited a moment for a cogent reply, then with the knuckle of his middle finger he rapped my sternum three times forcefully and said with intensity, “Just this!”

Now a days, “Just this” is one of my least favorite Zen sound bites but in that moment it really meant something important because it seemed to be spoken by someone who really knew it through and through.

If you were approached just now and asked “What is Zen?” what would you say?

Over at Nyoho Zen, Koun raises American Zen’s dirty little secret – we don’t agree what it is. Koun frames the issue well and then takes a hack at the definition a couple times. Here’s one:

The thing called Zen that I have found, through teachers and training and my own inquiry, is an immersive world of ritual enactment, one in which we sit not like the Buddha, but as Buddha.

I’d say that says a lot, maybe he got 80 or 90% there!

Another way of responding is to say that Zen is awakening. This is true in both just-sitting Zen and koan Zen, although what that little word “awakening” means seems to differ quite a lot.

Some seem to say that awakening = nonawakening and that’s true sometimes, you can see it that way. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Form is also form and emptiness is also emptiness, though, something some of these baldies may not have appreciated.

Others say that awakening has nothing to do with Zen. They take the Budh (awakening) out of Buddhism and so should get new tires on their car and travel around to find a good teacher.

Some just-sitting teachers claim that Zen is everything. Seems to me that there is a better answer.

Hongzhi, the old Soto sage, said it this way:

Planting fields, making rice – ordinary household matters; only those who have investigated to the full would know – having investigated to the full, you clearly know there’s nothing to seek.

That “investigated to the full” part (the same phrase Dogen uses to start Universal Recommendations for Zazen but is usually left untranslated) is the key.

Dogen’s great question was (to paraphrase) that if everything is already perfectly Zen, why practice?

He answers himself in koan presentational style like this:

Mayu was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, “Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why then do you fan yourself?”

“Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent,” Mayu replied, “you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.”

“What is the meaning of its reaching every­where?” asked the monk again. Mayu just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply.

What is Zen? Let’s not just tell each other, but show each other with our lives, moment by moment.

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  • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz

    I got a B! I can live with that. :-)

    • doshoport

      You could focus on the 90% part!
      And sometimes even 80%, as you know, is 100%!

  • BuddhaFrog

    Dosho writes: “What is Zen? Let’s not just tell each other, but show each other with our lives, moment by moment.”

    precisely :-)

    • doshoport

      Hi BuddhaFrog!
      Good to hear from you.

  • http://dalaigrandma.blogspot.com Jeanne Desy

    Let me try. When you investigate ordinary matters to the full, there is no Zen.

    • doshoport

      Thank you for your practice. May your life go well.

  • http://arielpork.blogspot.com Austin

    Zen is eating genmai at the bottom of the ocean, then cleaning your bowls with the rabbit in the moon!

    • doshoport

      “Eating brown rice at the bottom of the ocean” – like in a submarine or something? Otherwise your Zen thing is rather esoteric and impractical, imv.

  • Oreb

    This is easy: it’s what my sub-sect does and absolutely not what your sub-sect does.

    • doshoport

      Now, now, that’s certainly our shadow that oughta get some light from time to time…but not the point. I suggest there’s a truth to Zen/dharma that’s not limited to parochial distinctions.
      I’m wondering, Oreb, are you hiding in sarcasm?

      • Oreb

        Sarcasm? Sorry, more black humour. A teacher I met said (black humour) that internal bickering is almost a defining charcteristic of the zen tradition. Read Hakuin or Dogen for nice examples. And Dosho, you’ve been dissing other approaches quite a lot recently or have I read you wrong?

        Then again, say you read it in a koan:

        Chinese guy 1: “What is zen? Tell me!”
        Chinese guy 2: “Its what my sub-sect does, absolutely not what your sub-sect does!”
        Chinese guy 1 finally after 10 years of trying to decide who is right and who is wrong is enlightened.
        Chinese guy 1 and 2 have a good laugh.

        • doshoport

          I object to that! My “dissing” is not limited to sectarianism!

  • Gary

    Zen is Buddhism. Zen is a way to practice Buddhism. Zen is a way to let go of the self and not stick to this world or to Zen. Your question is one that we can not fully answer at least I cann’t. Zen is a concept that may lead us to understanding. Zen is not important, but practicing Zen with great sincerity is what matters.

  • http://bodhiarmour.blogspot.com/ Harry

    The Master asks ‘What is Zen?’ with a cry,
    I look, I look, I look… until the Master steals my eye.



  • http://JustThis@bigour.blogspot.com alan

    THERE’S AN OLD ZEN STORY: a student said to Master Ichu, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.” Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: “Attention.” The student said, “Is that all?” The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.” The student became irritable. “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.” In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” In frustration, the student demanded, “What does this word ‘attention’ mean?” Master Ichu replied, “Attention means attention.”

    Copied from the web

  • Larry Anderson

    Howdy Wild Fox,

    When Coyote asked Wren,
    “What is Zen?”
    she replied with a chiding chatter.

    By just This!!! and just Then
    tiny Wren
    had settled this mighty big Matter.

    Bodhi Coyote’s commentary:

    How can just This!!! be missed
    when just then
    there is no need to ask again?

    Just then
    this Wren!!!

    Just NOW
    just WOW!!!

    Bow Now,


    • doshoport

      Wow Bow Back When!

      • Larry Anderson

        ZEN WREN!!!!